Marie Diviš Coffey ~ July 27, 2017
As our bus crossed the invisible line dividing Austria from Slovakia, I had to look quickly to notice the official buildings on both sides of the highway — the only clue that we had left one country and entered another. It also marked the abrupt end of the huge, steel-towered windmills, which stood at attention, in random formation, over much of Austria, but not Slovakia. My eyes swept over the rural landscape ahead and relished the feeling of returning to Grandpa Stefan Divis’ homeland. I gazed out over the rolling hills and farmlands, and waited to see what has become the symbol of Slovakia to me — acres and acres of sunflower heads all tilted at the same angle, in as tight a formation as soldiers, tracking the sun. Steel tower monster windmills as opposed to graceful sunflowers: the first of many contrasts I have encountered in my trips to Slovakia. This is the place I love to come back to! Grandpa, on the other hand, made a very brave decision to leave this land in 1910, never to return. I wonder what he would think of my journey.
I came with a large group from the New Heights Church, Vancouver, Washington, USA, to teach and tutor students in English as a second language. I was as eager to learn about them and their country as they were to learn about me and mine. They are quick to learn English, more so than I will ever be to learn Slovak. Oh, that my father, Stephen George Divish, first born of Stefan, had taught me the language he learned as a child living in the home of immigrants in Michigan. My students are eager to see and experience beyond the borders of their small war torn country. They are curious why I would want in, when many of them — as did my Grandfather — want out.
While the younger generation has studied the history of their country, their parents and grandparents have lived through hard times as surrounding empires trampled over and controlled the Slovaks. Rick Steves said it well in his travel guide “Vienna Salzburg & Tirol” “…brutally disfigured by the Communist… Slovakia has spent most of its history as someone else’s backyard. “ Dominating powers crushed the Slovaks, renamed villages and towns, and imposed the conqueror’s language on the area.
Case in point, Grandpa Stefan’s birth certificate lists the village of Nedašovce. I obtained a copy of that document during the reign of the “Ceskoslovenska socialisticka republika,” so it bears the seal of Czechoslovakia. When Stefan booked passage in Hamburg, Germany, to sail to the USA, he listed “Nystravapa, Hungary,” as his home, which reflected the controlling dynasty of the Magyars of Hungary. Perhaps it was from this that Grandpa fled, along with hundreds of thousands of other Slovaks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The harsh economic conditions could have been a factor as well. American industries, coal and steel manufacturers, were looking for cheap labor and were willing to pay the passage of potential workers to cross the Atlantic. Whether Grandpa had any part of that deal remains a mystery. However he managed to fund it, Stefan booked passage on the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria for October 12, 1910. Online searches reveal the Kaiserin arrived at Ellis Island, New York, on October 29, 1910. The ship’s manifest records an entry for “Istvan Devis” with Grandpa’s birthdate, nationality and mother’s name, Anna Diviš (or possibly Devis). Interestingly, errors on names and spelling likely happened while registering to depart, in contrast to the popular picture of someone scribbling the name they thought they heard from the newly arrived pilgrim. Stefan Diviš became Istvan Devis. Grandpa’s timing, perhaps intentional, took him safely out of harm’s way, as WWI and then WWII devastated his homeland, and soon to follow, Communist occupation. The more I have learned of Slovakia’s past, the more compassion I have for my people, and realize why they are not trusting of strangers.
But that is not the case at the Center for Christian Education in Martin, and the CCE staff members who oversee and teach at the Lutheran Academy. Our team’s reception couldn’t be warmer or more sincere. The New Heights Church has been coming to serve this community since 2007. Working with the students, elementary school age up to adults, is a rewarding experience that has many of us returning again and again. This was my third trip. We all look forward to re-engaging with former students who are now friends, and meeting new ones. Each one has a story that I am eager to learn and, soon, a place in my heart.
Imagine my surprise this year to see a poster advertising the upcoming English School, displayed in the cobblestone courtyard of the nearby church. In the poster for all to see was a picture of my students and I, smiling and enjoying our classroom experience. I had become the poster child for American teachers! Well, I hoped that was what it said – it was all in Slovakia – maybe it said “most wanted!!” According to Ivona Smiešková, whose smiling face also graced the poster, we were spotted riding around town on the sides of local buses!
Thanks to that poster, or perhaps in spite of it, many students registered for our English class. They came from near and far, to be tested and put in one of four classes based on their language ability and age. While those in my advanced class worked on grammar, I worked equally hard to learn AND PRONOUNCE their names! And words like prevodovka –“a most important word” my friend Adam insisted – everyone should know the right word for “gearbox!” Monday through Friday, we packed in lessons and activities. A daily favorite was the “walk and talk” around town. My students and I extended it into a “road march” one afternoon. We walked through our lunch hour, touring the countryside with a stop at Martin’s airport. It was a time to build special friendships, in spite of that blister on my heel! After classes, there are opportunities for trips and excursions to view the beauty and history of Martin and the surrounding areas of Slovakia. There is so much to see, barely enough time to soak up the people and places of this country. But one little village calls to me – Nedašovce – and I eagerly anticipated a chance to see it again, for therein lie the secrets of my family’s roots.
In an age of easy access, Google knows all, and will tell in seconds, searching the past in Slovakia is a challenge, to say the least. The obstacles are tall and multiple. To begin with, I can neither talk, write, nor read to communicate with the locals. Google translate? Not so much help when a literal translation of “how are you” is “how do you keep yourself?” Add to that layers of bureaucracy covering official records, never mind finding local and church records buried under years of oppression and war, and don’t forget the changing identity of villages. Hiring a native genealogist is tempting but expensive, and I have resisted, budging my resources for travel here! What I needed was a miracle. Reading from God’s script, enter right stage: Miloš and family! While I search endlessly for my blood line, God has provided me with a proxy Slovak family, the Krpelans. Without their help, and joyful support, none of my searching could have happened. Our providential meeting occurred three years ago, when Miloš and his daughter, Lýdia, were students in my class, setting the stage for our friendship and adventures.
This year is no different from the previous two, in that Miloš, unknown to me, was busy working to facilitate our next adventure. In addition to taking two weeks off from his communications job to practice English at our school, he had devoted time and effort making calls, connecting with officials in Nedašovce and surrounding villages for clues about the Diviš family. He had set up appointments for us to meet with town clerks to examine their records. And so one day, after a hurried lunch, we: Miloš, Lýdia and Julia (Lýdia’s friend) hopped into their family car, leaving behind classrooms and school to begin our third expedition.
Our first stop was at the Krpelan home to pick up Ivana, oldest daughter, and valued member of my entourage. How many Slovaks does it take to escort one American around the country? Four! Miloš, Ivana, Lýdia and Julia! My team was complete! We left their home in Prievdzská, bidding “Mrs. Miloš,” Iveta, farewell, along with their grandfather and youngest sister, Lenka. Unbeknownst to me, they have a plan of their own to keep them occupied for the afternoon.
Back on the road, Miloš received a call from the clerk of Rybany, a village not too far from Nedašovce. Vlasta Gálisová maintained the town’s record books. Vlasta had something to show us, so she called to confirm our visit and to suggest we drive to Partizánske and speak with the clerk there. But that was a challenge, as it was already 1 p.m., the Partizánske office closed at 2 and would not wait for our arrival before closing their doors. My hosts reminded me that bureaucracies in Slovakia turn very slowly, with little or no personal touch. As time was passing, we focused our efforts on connecting with the Rybany office.
Vlasta, unlike that stereotype, greeted us warmly and took us to the mayor’s spacious office. There was no sign of a mayor, but more importantly, on the table, were two very large ledger books entitle Sobášna Matrika – Marriage Registry. One was dated 1907-1922, and the other 1923-1949. Handwritten in beautiful cursive penmanship, the pages were filled with records of the village marriages. Each volume held a treasure for me. Vlasta pointed to an entry recording the marriage of my Grandfather’s niece, Emilia, to Stefan Hancko on July 5, 1948. It listed Emilia’s father as Josef Diviš and mother as Maria Jedlickova. Emilia’s birthdate was recorded as Aug 13, 1929 – all of which matched what Miloš had copied from the baptism records of the Vysočany Church near Nedašovce during my visit last year. Emilia was 19 when she married Stefan Hancko, who was from Baťovany, Slovakia. Here was a window into the history of my family and I savored the moment, viewing new clues to their lives. All I knew of Emilia was contained in that book.
Also recorded were their occupations. Emilia was a worker in a shoe factory. Perhaps not surprisingly, Stefan was a manager in a shoe factory. Shoes! My team and I had had a conversation two years ago about shoes!! Miloš had said there was a shoe factory in this area years ago. That conversation had prompted me to do some research when I returned home in 2015. A librarian from The Czech-Slovak National Library in Iowa shared this: “The sad tale of Slovakia’s Bata Shoes,” by Michael J Jordan. It documented a now-defunct shoe factory in Partizánske, Slovakia. The story, I remembered reading, mentioned that the name “Partizánske” was originally “Baťovany,” located in the Danubian hills, but renamed by the communists. Bingo! I connected the dots and realized that was where Emilia’s groom was from! This factory had been a Czech-owned shoe business that opened in Partizánske around 1938-39 and was under communist control in the ’40s. It continued to operate until the early 1990s, declining with privatization and the separation of the Czech Republic from Slovakia. Economic times were tough in central Europe in the ’30s and ’40s, and jobs scarce, so it seems reasonable to speculate that Emilia and her Stefan were employed by Bata Shoes. How unfortunate that we would not be visiting the Partizánske village today. Oh, what secrets lay there? Were other pieces of Emilia’s life hidden in Baťovany – now Partizánske? Did she have children? Did they live their lives out in Partizánske, are they buried there? Another adventure for another trip!
One last tidbit of information – the witness to this marriage was Rudolf Tlsty. Was he related to either Emilia or Stefan? Or just a passerby, asked to be a witness? Always more questions!
We turned our attention to the other book. Line # 20, page 104 of the older volume recorded the marriage of Emilia’s parents, Josef Diviš and Maria Jedlicka. Josef’s birth information was a perfect match with what Miloš had copied from the church records in Vysočany. I was convinced Josef was my great uncle, youngest brother of my Grandfather Stefan Diviš. The marriage record also offered more information about his bride, Maria. (And MY mother thought she picked the name “Marie” for me to represent the French in her family! She probably had no idea how many “Maria”s were in the Divišh family!) Maria’s father was Prarrtisek Jedlicka, and her mother was Helena Podoba. Maria was born in Pravatice, or something like that (Pravotice, Travatice?). Josef and Maria were married on April 17, 1921, in Vysočany, where Josef was baptized. Interesting that the marriage was recorded in this book as well as the church registry. He was nine years older than his bride. Josef may have been a shoe cobbler by trade, but as he was born 45 years ahead of the communist shoe factory, it is unlikely that he worked where his daughter and son–in-law did.
Having squeezed out as many clues as we could from the contents of the Marriage Registry, we examined the book itself. Vlasta and Miloš were searching other records and possible sources in an adjoining office, which left Ivana, Lýdia, Julia and I alone with the historic volumes. Hesitant to even touch the books, we seized our chance to closely examine them. Each book had a paper cover that was worn and tattered. The bindings were fragile; the strings that bound the middle of the book were visible. With great care, I lifted one book. It was as heavy to hold, as it was heavy laden with the lives of the local people. Here I was, holding this precious treasure – quick, someone take a picture! I carefully placed it back on the table. It was time to move on.
Thanking Vlasta for her help and time, we drove on to Nedašovce, just minutes away. Mayor Elena was on holiday, but we stopped and parked in front of her office for a photo op. From there, we walked to the home of ING Anton Kajaba and his wife, Andrea. We had first met Anton two years ago in Mayor Elena’s office. He was the one to direct us to the Diviš house, as well as the cemetery. He was also the first to mention the shoe trade and Josef. Anton’s title of “ING” reflects his academic training as an engineer. Anton is 80 years old now, born in 1937, and he claimed to be the second-oldest surviving resident in Nedašovce. We gathered around a table in his yard to talk, his wife brought us soda and pastry, his beagle dog yapping….in Slovak, I imagined! I pondered what it must be like to be deaf, for while I heard them talking, I did not understand any words of this conversation. My team translated during pauses, updating me, as Anton talked. Mostly he remembered Anna (born 1936) and her younger sister Margita (born 1938), the two youngest daughters of Josef Diviš. Josef would have been about 17 years old when my grandfather left Slovakia in 1910 for the USA, so understandably, Anton does not remember Stefan, nor much of Josef. Anton reminisced about dancing with Anna and spending time with her. Our visit was pleasant and entertaining — well, I thought it was! But we left without any new information or clues.
From Anton’s house, we walked to the cemetery. Even though it was my third visit to this little country village, I once again pinched myself to be sure that I was not dreaming. It was just as exciting and unbelievable to be there again. The cemetery was a short walk, resting quietly in the same location we left it a year ago. Again I was struck with the enormity of headstones and grave markers. Miloš told me that Slovaks saved their whole lives so that they could afford these burial monuments. But unlike American customs, the Slovaks rent the plot of land! Inquiring minds want to know: What happens if the rent isn’t paid?! My fellow team members, now sleuths, spread out – examining each stone’s etchings. Surely others of the Diviš family are here, but where? Slovaks frequently visit their departed loved ones, and artificial flowers decorate many grave sites if not fresh flowers placed or planted around the plot. Many stones are worn smooth with time and the names are unreadable. There is one area that has mostly unmarked small graves. If only we knew what secrets those held.
We had scoured this cemetery twice before, and our only discovery had been the grave of Josef Diviš. So now, we gathered around and stared intently at his marker. His headstone declared his life and death, Sept 9, 1892-Aug 20, 1960. His wife, Maria Jedlickova, next to him, lived from Feb 2, 1901- Oct 14, 1994. Ivana was searching a few a rows away from us and suddenly called us to join her. In front of her was a grave marker for Anna Podobova rod Jelickova. Pointing out the dates on the stone, Ivana observed that Anna’s birthdate was identical to Maria’s. Could they be twins?! It seemed like a very real possibility as both stones had the name “Jedlickova.” This grave site looked well-tended, not grown over with grass and weeds. It was decorated with the traditional candles seen on so many of the graves. So we wrote a note, in Slovak, inquiring of the family of this twin, suggesting that I might be related, would they please contact me or Miloš. We put the small scrap of paper inside the glass candle holder and by the grace of God, perhaps someone will find it! This must be the equivalent of a note in a bottle tossed out to sea!
Feeling we had turned over every possible stone here – well, not literally – we walked back toward the center of town. We had yet to see the Diviš family house, so we walked, watching for it. Soon we found it, and paused to look it over. There was a huge, gaping hole on the right exterior wall. A man could jump through it! Sitting in front of the right side of the house was a man who looked very similar to the one we saw in the yard on our visit in 2016. He did not look welcoming then, and we had left without attempted speak with him. He appeared busy pulling old furniture out of the house. This year, he was sitting, watching us. Miloš and the girls were hesitant to initiate conversation and wanted to hurry past the house. As I later reflected on that moment, I wondered if the response of my Slovak friends was a product of the culture of Slovakian people rather than of intimidation or fear. Friends and family are warmly embraced. But to the passerby on the street, eyes are averted and there is no acknowledgement as the two strangers pass, no contact is made. I have come to understand that this is likely due to the hostile, even dangerous climate the country existed in under many foreign and later communist regimes. Strangers could not be trusted and therefore no contact was made.
But, American than I am, I just could not walk on by without attempting some kind of conversation with this stranger in Grandpa’s house! I pleaded with Miloš to talk to him and ask him about the house. The conversation that took place surprised us all. This man lived in one side of the house, and was willing go next door to find the landlord. I stood in amazement, anticipating what we might learn. The landlord, a friendly middle-aged man, approached us and gave us permission to come into the yard. Excitedly I entered the gate and hurried toward the house. In this gentleman’s hand was a large skeleton key. He put it in the door and invited me to go in – INSIDE! I was going INSIDE the Diviš house! This was a step back into the dream I thought I was living when I first set foot into the small village of Nedašovce in 2015, and then found this house. Then, and now, it was as unbelievable as setting foot on the moon! And now here I was INSIDE! I handed my phone to the girls with instructions to take pictures while I explored and talked with the landlord, who followed me through the door. There we were – my adopted family, the owner of the property and me – the first Diviš to set foot in this building for – decades? I wish I knew!
The house, I must say, showed its age. It was built in about 1860, we were told. Its current owner thought originally it had been built to be some kind of stable, belonging to a wealthy family. As it was that day, it vaguely resembled a duplex, a room and hallway separating each half. The man we first saw was occupying one side. There were two more buildings, duplex style, to the right of the Diviš house. The current owner explained that he understood all three “duplexes” were connected together to form the stable. At some point in time, they were separated. Now they belong to our new friend. He was very pleasant to us, happy to share what he knew. He even suggested he might be able to locate more history about the house, and took Miloš’s contact information. I wondered if my family ever actually owned this house. Which begs the question: What happened to Grandpa Stefan’s parents and siblings as time passed, wars came and neighboring empires conquered. Diviš family lore suggests that Stefan & Josef’s father, Augustine, was a leather worker, perhaps making horse harnesses? I have few threads to unravel the mystery of Augustine and Anna Natravil Diviš. Miloš had found an entry in the Vysočany church records, a short distance from Nedašovce, with a wedding date of Nov. 9, 1879. Augustine lived a short life, dying in his 30s, from pneumonia, and Anna living into her 70s. But where they lived after Nedašovce and where they are buried remains a mystery.
But I digress. Back to THE HOUSE! Stepping through the front door, to the left, one enters into a long hall, perhaps 6 feet wide, leading to a back door going out into a small backyard. Bricks cover a portion of the hallway walls around the back door. A large door to the left of the hall/entrance, leads into one single room — maybe 10’ by 12’. It is in various stages of disrepair, and there are signs that someone is attempting to repair/restore/remodel: lumber piles, debris, a ladder, but no furniture. The walls are partially covered with old, faded, reddish wallpaper, with a floral decorative print. Large areas of bare wood are exposed where the wall paper is missing. The floor is a bare wood. The windows look like they have been replaced at some point, looking newer than the structure itself. While the landlord chats with Miloš, I continue to look around and marvel that I am, indeed, INSIDE! It doesn’t take long to see it all, and soon we all walked back out the front door, taking a few more pictures. We lingered with the landlord, who promised to do research on the original owners. Saying our goodbyes, we resumed our walk down the street, congratulated each other at having achieved this feat of not only finding the owner, but entering into this mysterious house! It is late in the afternoon as we return to the car, and time for us to return to the Krpelans’ residence, a 30-minute drive away. We reviewed our day as we left Nedašovce and counted the blessings of our discoveries and those who helped us along the way. Amazing!
We had covered so much ground; it was hard to believe that only one afternoon had passed since we last saw Iveta and Lenka back at their home. A meal was ready for us, stuffed cabbage and chicken, which we quickly devoured. After dinner, we retired to the family room, I as their guest for the night. We would return to school the following morning. Settled on their couch, I tried to absorb the events of our day. Another English school would be over tomorrow, and I would be sad to say goodbye to this precious family. My discoveries of the Diviš heritage will forever be entwined with the Kreplan family. As my thoughts turned sentimental, I was interrupted by five ladies — carrying ONE CAKE and singing a song with a vague resemblance to “Happy Birthday to you,” only in Slovak! I had totally forgotten it was my birthday! My class had sung to me earlier in the day, and someone must have told Iveta & Lenka, who had been busy all afternoon baking a delicious banana cream cake. What a perfect ending to a terrific day — a birthday to remember! Grandpa, thank you for setting me on this journey!
July 27, 2017
Marie Diviš Coffey